Avant Cuts Staff By Third In Operations Restructuring Expenses Reduced By 40 Percent

Avant Cuts Staff By Third In Operations Restructuring

By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc. announced it has consolidated its operations to Needham, Mass., and restructured its business to reduce expenses by approximately 40 percent.

The company was formed in May by the merger of T Cell Sciences Inc., of Needham, and Virus Research Institute Inc. (VRI), of Cambridge, Mass. At the time, VRI declined to talk about staff cutbacks. Now, Avant is reducing its work force by 30 percent, to 63 employees, and has reallocated resources to its top three research programs. (See BioWorld Today, May 13, 1998, p. 1.)

"We decided to focus on three programs with the greatest chance of success," said Una Ryan, president and CEO of Avant. "We have been quite drastic and we've lost some very good workers and friends in the process. But, we decided to swallow the bitter pill in order to focus on our main projects."

Avant will fund programs in its first- and second- generation complement inhibitors, an atherosclerosis vaccine, and the Therapore program for the treatment of established cancers and ongoing viral infections.

The company's various development partners will fund existing programs: a rotavirus vaccine with SmithKline Beecham plc, of London; an adjuvant program with Pasteur Merieux Connaught, of Lyon, France; and some aspects of the complement program with Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland, and Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical Co., of Tokyo.

"We aren't dropping our other programs, such as the small molecule immunomodulator program, but we will need corporate partners to fund them," Ryan said. "We will fund our three programs, and anything else will have to be paid for by a partner."

As of Sept. 30, Avant had $17 million in cash. Ryan said the restructuring will guarantee that the company has adequate cash for next year without additional partnerships or royalty streams from existing partnerships.

Avant's lead compound is TP10, soluble Complement Receptor 1 (sCR1), which inhibits complement activation. Complement is a family of immune system proteins that circulate in the blood and help identify and eliminate damaged tissue, contributing to the body's acute inflammatory response against disease, infection and injury.

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Excessive complement activation has been implicated in acute respiratory distress syndrome, reperfusion injury following ischemic events, organ transplant rejection, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. TP 10 has completed a successful Phase I/II trial in patients undergoing lung transplants. The company is also developing a second generation complement inhibitor, TP 20.

Ryan said the company intended to place its atherosclerosis vaccine in clinical trials sometime during the first half of 1999.

"We are moving forward with our business model of showing safety and initial efficacy in a clinical trial, and searching for a partner to take us through the more expensive clinical stages," Ryan said. "Eventually, we are working toward developing some of our products ourselves."

Avant's stock (NASDAQ:AVAN) closed Thursday at $1.375, up $0.062. n